The Drug War Revisited


The Badlands, Philadelphia, Daniel Sandoval

by Eric Schneider

A few miles from my house lies a block of abandoned row homes, fronts tightly sealed against vandals, which appear to be inhabited only by pigeons and the occasional rodent. But looks are deceiving, and the call of free bleach kits and condoms draws out residents from basements and backyards, the street suddenly humming with black men of indeterminate age eager to clean their “works”. In the backs of these houses, where plywood has been removed and tin sheeting pried open, the uselessness of city efforts to seal these buildings is obvious as discarded needles and the detritus of the drug trade crunch underfoot. In other parts of the neighborhood, surreptitious warnings of police cause dealers to scatter, though the idea that someone as gray and academic-looking as I am could be seen as part of an undercover team seems faintly ludicrous, though protective. This is Philadelphia’s “badlands,” where little seems to have changed after forty years of the drug war, and a stranger who is not a customer must be a cop.

The status of the badlands as a regional drug marketplace has been overdetermined. The intersecting railroad lines and the elevated highway testify to the area’s faded industrial centrality, but it is still an ideal location for drug sellers as buyers can scurry off the interstate to make a purchase on the way home to the suburbs. The subway and trolley lines carry potential customers just like they once ferried thousands of workers into and out of the area. Centrality has made Kensington and North Philadelphia into a hive of industrial productivity and it accounts for its role in the underground economy. 

The local landscape helps as well. Blocks of row houses, cheaply constructed but allowing widespread working class home ownership, sit cheek by jowl with factory sites.  Their chief value was proximity to work, but when factories closed and work disappeared whatever capital home owners had invested here trickled away, leaving them mired in place or leading those with options to abandon houses whose taxes and upkeep could no longer be justified economically. Shells of houses, burnt out stores, vacant lots, and cleared industrial “brownfields” are interspersed with schools, churches and residences, but it is the drug trade that supplies whatever economic lifeblood still flows through the community, whilst the abandoned houses and factory buildings provide cover for stash houses and shooting galleries. The decisions of corporate boards and investment bankers to ship jobs away from America’s cities have had no more devastatingly apparent results than here, where the drug trade is the free market’s answer to deindustrialization.

The ten-dollar packet of heroin that I can buy in the badlands is purer and more readily available than in the past. In the 1960s, a ten dollar bag might have contained over 90 percent adulterants, whereas today’s bag contains as much as 70 percent pure heroin. As a result, new middle class users snort or smoke the drug, avoiding the stigma and dangers of IV drug use, though still risking the possibility of addiction. In 1971, when President Richard Nixon declared war on drugs (“If we cannot destroy the drug menace in America, then it will surely in time destroy us”), there were approximately 700,000 state and federal prisoners in the United States. Today there are about 2.4 million and with much of that increase due to the war on drugs. Yet heroin, when examining the unit price, is cheaper and purer than before the drug war started. How is it possible that we have created such a mess?

One factor is that American drug policy focuses primarily on controlling supply, even though it is demand that organizes the market. As a result, even if we are successful in limiting poppy cultivation in one part of the world, production simply shifts elsewhere.  Opium poppies are relatively easy to grow and require only cheap labor to harvest, which most developing countries possess in abundance. Opium offers an unrivaled opportunity to participate in a global economy and the combination of weak states, political instability, and economic marginality ensures that market demand will be met somewhere.

We have an example of how rapidly production can shift from one region to another in the recent past. Poppies from the “Golden Crescent” (Turkey, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan) have always been prized for their high opium content and the white heroin derived from them dominated the post-World War Two heroin marketplace. Turkey, where opium poppies could be grown legally as long as they were sold to the government opium monopoly, served as the world’s leading producer of both licit and illicit opium. Then, in 1971, the Nixon Administration, appalled by the growing population of domestic heroin users and a surging wave of both property and violent crime, negotiated a treaty with Turkey that effectively removed that country from the heroin supply chain: the U.S. agreed to pay Turkish peasants to grow substitute crops and the Turkish government agreed to crack down on illicit poppy growing. Almost simultaneously, French police raided heroin laboratories in the Marseilles area, disrupting the “French connection” that had smuggled heroin through the port of New York for a generation. This perfect storm of supply disruption caused a heroin panic in the United States.

Fortunately the Nixon Administration also addressed demand: approximately two-thirds of Nixon’s spending on the war on drugs went for treatment. Nixon was particularly concerned that Vietnam veterans, returning home addicted to the heroin they found in South East Asia, would further fuel the nation’s crime wave. Methadone was thought to be the answer to this problem. In Washington, D.C., where the federal government had a free hand to experiment, initiated the most extensive methadone maintenance program in the country, which resulted in a decline in the city’s crime rate while those in other cities continued to climb. Nixon therefore authorized an expansion of methadone and other treatment options, and in the face of very expensive, weak, and hard-to-find heroin, hard-core users flocked to the methadone clinics. 

But neither the heroin panic nor the nation’s flirtation with methadone lasted. Other countries quickly stepped up to fill the void in the market and methadone proved less promising than its early supporters thought. Heroin from Mexican opium poppies, traditionally shunned in the U.S. (except among Mexican Americans in the Southwest) because of its brown color, gummy consistency and lower opiate content, moved northward to take over the U.S. market. The Drug Enforcement Administration identified a “Mexican Connection,” organized by the Herrera brothers of Durango, which shipped heroin (along with illegal immigrants) to Chicago. By 1975, Mexican heroin was widely available in the streets of New York, effectively ending the heroin shortage. Other connections soon appeared:  high-quality heroin from the Golden Triangle in South East Asia literally followed American servicemen back from Vietnam as Harlem gangster Frank Lucas smuggled heroin in the coffins of U.S. soldiers. Also, Puerto Rican and Cuban entrepreneurs opened new supply lines into the U.S. through Latin America.

At the same time, the methadone experiment was failing. The patient screening, the job training, educational programming and psychological counseling of the early programs that produced high remission rates were not replicated in the expanded methadone program. Reports that methadone was harder to “kick” than heroin, that it did not form a “blockade” against the effects of heroin, that methadone users abused alcohol and cocaine, and that a black market in methadone had developed soured the American public on methadone maintenance. Harsher penalties for drug dealing, usually catching only small time user-peddlers, quickly followed.

The Nixon drug war’s principal achievement was not to eliminate heroin from the American marketplace, but to break New York’s monopoly over the heroin trade. Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles all became important heroin smuggling centers, and with ethnic succession in organized crime, gangsters other than Italians and Jews established international connections to heroin suppliers. Since many of these suppliers were in Latin America, they also began to ship increasing quantities of cocaine, which eventually glutted the market and produced a new drug craze in the form of crack.

The Nixon Administration’s ambitious war on drugs succeeded for a brief time because it dealt simultaneously with supply and demand. This suggests the obvious failings of our current war on drugs. Clearly there is a place for supply reduction, as the Nixon treaty with Turkey shows. Land reform, crop substitution, and even subsidies to allow peasant farmers to enter the world market with other crops hold long term promise, but these efforts cannot be limited to a single country or even a single region, and we will need a time horizon of a half century or more to see success. 

A policy of demand reduction also faces a long time horizon. Clearly a policy that only incarcerates users will continue to fail. Tripling the population in state and federal prisons has not succeeded in curtailing the demand for drugs in the United States, and has only resulted in an enormous increase in the number of African Americans with felony convictions. (Policies differ by states, but in many jurisdictions ex-felons permanently lose their right to vote). Replacing incarceration with drug treatment, including maintenance, is essential to any demand reduction, but treatment has to be accompanied by the training, counseling and skills development of the pioneer methadone programs.

But even this is not enough. Treatment does not deal with the sources of drug abuse, and any real attempt at demand reduction must begin with prevention. Here there is also a worthwhile example from the past: The overwhelming majority of heroin-using Vietnam veterans stopped using the drug upon their return to the United States. A change in their “social setting” (leaving Vietnam behind) produced abstinence rates of about 90 percent, something that no treatment program, counseling service, detoxification or medical intervention has ever matched. Addressing the social setting of current drug users holds the key to curtailing drug abuse. 

Heroin use in the U.S. has been highly spatialized historically, occurring largely (though not exclusively) among inner-city populations who are socially and economically on the margins. It is here, in places like Philadelphia’s badlands, that the drug economy has taken hold and it is here that any policy of demand reduction must be located. In my opinion, federal job creation, real work solving real problems of housing, infrastructure and public transportation offers the best opportunity to confront the sources of drug abuse.

How realistic is this? In the current political climate where laissez-faire reigns, the answer is not very. But the market solution to vanishing jobs for people with few skills is the one we have. In North Philadelphia and Kensington, in similar neighborhoods and in collapsing industrial towns, the underground market is thriving. Heroin is a product that generates its own demand; that induces users to constantly create income-generating strategies; that absorbs the user in a process of self-consumption; that destroys both the user and the physical spaces in which use is concentrated. Conservative ideology has no answer to that.

About the Author:

Eric Schneider is the Associate Director for Academic Affairs and an Adjunct Professor of History in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of In the Web of Class: Delinquents and Reformers in Boston, 1810s-1930s (1992), Vampires, Dragons, and Egyptian Kings: Youth Gangs in Postwar New York (1999), and Smack: Heroin and the American City (2008).

Schneider is currently working on a history of homicide in Philadelphia from the 1940s to the 1990s, American Necropolis: Homicide in the Modern City.